The blank stares. The anguished cries. The flailing bats. The bobbled ball.
The ghost of the Dodgers’ World Series past clinked across the diamond Wednesday night, and it was pretty horrifying.
Dave Roberts hanging on the dugout railing looking lost. Dustin May jumping off the mound and screaming to the sky. Cody Bellinger trudging away from home plate while glaring down and scolding himself.
Pitchers who can’t get big outs. Hitters hacking at everything. A grounder that falls out of a glove and into two runs.
On an eerie Wednesday night at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, the Dodgers wilted into a 6-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays to even this seemingly one-sided series at one game apiece.
“They’re tough … and for us to beat them, we’ve got to play good baseball,” acknowledged Roberts.
The Dodgers aren’t going to make it easy, are they? The seemingly superior team couldn’t just sweep their way out of a 32-year championship drought, could they? That would be too easy, wouldn’t it? Poor Dodger Nation needs to suffer just a little longer, huh?
Maybe this loss was nothing. It was the Dodgers’ bullpen game, Roberts running through three rookie pitchers in the first five innings after which the Dodgers trailed by five. It was the Rays’ Cy Young game, former winner Blake Snell carrying a no-hitter into the fifth.
Maybe this was the one game the Rays can steal here. Maybe this was their best chance and they won’t get another one.
“We feel great,” said Roberts, noting his upcoming pitching lineup. “We’ve got Walker [Buehler] going, we’ve got Julio [Urías] going, and then we’ve got Clayton [Kershaw]. You look at kind of where our relievers are set with the off day tomorrow, we’re in a great spot.”
Or maybe not. Maybe this is something. As with the two prior Dodgers Game 2 stumbles in the past three years, maybe this night stole some of their magic that they cannot recover.
Maybe an omen was the eighth inning, when the Dodgers appeared to shake an impenetrable Rays bullpen that was 34-0 when leading after the seventh.
Against heat-flinging Pete Fairbanks, Corey Seager led off by blasting a homer over the center field fence to close the gap to two runs. Then Justin Turner doubled between two Rays outfielders and the rally was on.
Then it was off.
Max Muncy flew out. Will Smith lined out on four pitches. Then, against new reliever Aaron Loup, Bellinger struck out looking on five pitches.
Bellinger shouted at himself as he walked back to the dugout. It was the scene that spoke for a night. It ended when the Dodgers went down in the ninth on nine pitches, losing clear control of the series while shaking loose some long-buried demons.
Remember Game 2 in 2017 against the Houston Astros? Kenley Jansen allowed that infamous Marwin Gonzalez home run in the ninth to blow a lead and the Astros eventually won, 7-6, in 11 innings.
The bullpen never recovered and the cheating Astros stole it in seven games.
Remember Game 2 in 2018 against the Boston Red Sox? The Dodgers blew a one-run lead in the fifth when Roberts ill-advisedly brought in pitcher Ryan Madsen. Two batters later, the Red Sox had scored three times. The Dodgers didn’t get another hit and the 4-2 loss dropped them into a two-games-to-none hole from which they could not extract themselves.
The Dodgers believe this loss is different, if only because of their late rally on Wednesday.
“We did a good job of battling … we did a good job of fighting until the end,” said Chris Taylor, who hit a two-run homer in the fifth.
Yet on Wednesday night they were seemingly doomed from the beginning, when rookies Tony Gonsolin, Victor González and May combined to allow five runs in the first five innings, three of them on two home runs from Brandon Lowe, who entered batting .107 in the postseason.
Their poor output highlighted one of the Dodgers’ weaknesses — a team with the best pitching in baseball doesn’t have an established third and fourth starter.
In the offseason, baseball boss Andrew Friedman allowed the exit of veteran starters Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill. Then David Price opted out before the start of the pandemic-shortened season. Then this summer at the trade deadline, Friedman traded Ross Stripling to the Toronto Blue Jays for two prospects.
They figured they could fill out the rotation with young arms Gonsolin, May and Urías. But by the time the playoffs started, none had been established in a rotation role. While Urías will start later this series, Gonsolin and May have existed in bullpen-rotation limbo, and now are asked to assume prime roles under playoff pressure.
“It’s a big ask, to be quite frank,” said Roberts.
The pitching wasn’t helped by one giant fielding mistake, the Rays scoring two runs in the fourth after sure-handed second baseman Kiké Hernández’s failure to cleanly handle a potential double play grounder.
It was all so uncharacteristic. It was all so familiar.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.